Sinful and Indulgent“Dietland” and the Language of Fatphobia

DIETLAND Official Trailer (HD) Julianna Margulies AMC Series

To be fat is to have a deep familiarity with indignity. Whether the shame is induced by institutions, strangers, friends, or even family, to be fat is to be crushingly aware of your body at all times because vigilance is the best defense against the perceived transgression of existing. Dietland, AMC’s feminist-revenge drama based on Sarai Walker’s 2016 novel, perfectly captures the balancing act of grasping at self-love while resisting the impulse to accept self-loathing as punishment for refusing to conform to society’s thin ideal. And in Dietland, Alicia “Plum” Kettle (Joy Nash), an obscure magazine writer navigating a long and complicated relationship with her plus-size body, is on the tightrope.

When we meet Plum, she’s preparing to undergo weight-loss surgery after spending a large portion of her life on various diets and allowing her weight to dictate all aspects of her existence from how she dresses to her reliance on antidepressants to her refusal to eat the treats she bakes for her friends. While Plum wants to transform her body, Jennifer, a feminist guerilla group, is orchestrating the deaths of prominent men accused of sexually violating or harassing women in an effort to change a world that so often denies women justice. Dietland, however, isn’t just a single fat woman’s story or a revenge epic, but also examines the casual way fatphobic language is deployed in our everyday conversations.

Plum is never allowed to forget that she’s fat. (Even her nickname is a pejorative meant to call attention to the fact that she’s “succulent and round.”) In the first few minutes of the pilot, her friend Steven (Tramell Tillman), who owns the coffee shop where she spends the majority of her time, successfully guilts her into working a shift at his bakery because she “needs money for her dumb surgery.” It’s an incredibly insensitive slight that he frames as concern for her well-being. Instead of understanding that Plum is attempting to ease the pain that comes with being treated as inferior, he dismisses her desire to conform as self-serving and selfish. As Plum continues to prepare for her surgery, she again and again comes up against similar language that positions fatness as the ultimate sin.

Plum is seldomly subjected to aggressive policing and abuse because she chooses to isolate herself in her home and in Steven’s coffee shop. She doesn’t date and doesn’t have any real friends except Steven. Plum works as a ghost writer, answering letters that teen girls send to Daisy Chan’s editor-in-chief Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies). While the office is in New York City and Plum lives a subway ride away, Kitty prefers that she only comes into the office when necessary. Not only is she kept physically away from the rest of the magazine’s staff, but her contributions to Daisy Chan are hidden as well. (Everything Plum writes appears under Kitty’s byline.) This is reflective of the real-life “size ceiling” where fat people are held back or demoted in the workplace as a result of their size. Plum’s fatness does not conform to the shallow values that Daisy Chan and its leader hold dear, so Kitty hides Plum away so that her fatness will not be associated with the magazine.

Plum’s small world (and all-black wardrobe) reflects her understanding that the world wants her to take up less space, and she punishes herself by literalizing this mandate; she only exists in three spaces. Unsurprisingly, Plum’s dreams are haunted by a repulsive cartoon version of herself who appears when she’s most depressed to indulge in all the cravings and “bad behaviors” she’s trying to purge in her waking moments. Even the show’s opening credits depict a plump Plum climbing a mountain of food as her body withers away and she starves into skinny nothingness.

Despite Plum’s purposeful isolation, she still experiences dozens of smaller linguistic slights designed to diminish and shame her for taking up too much space. She’s told that dating her requires a special kind of open-mindedness, and when she gets a haircut, Kitty tells her that she finally looks like she’s “making an effort.” Every comment is intended to call attention to her weight and its corresponding undesirability. When Plum is given an anti-diet manifesto written by Verena Baptist (Robin Weigart), the daughter of a weight-loss guru who founded the “Baptist Weight Loss Clinics” and den mother of Calliope House, a refuge for abused and abandoned women, she realizes that religious language is often used to describe a fat person’s relationship with food and weight loss.

Joy Nash as Plum in Dietland (Photo Credit: Patrick Harbron/AMC)

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Adherents to the diet were called “Baptists,” and Plum describes the regimen as being like a cult where they “practically prayed” to the founder’s “old fat jeans.” This sentiment closely mirrors everyday language around food and dieting. Sweet treats like chocolate or ice cream are marketed as “sinful” or “indulgent,” immediately framing their consumption as transgressions against the body. To partake in them is to behave badly, a deviation from the morally upstanding norm of gustatory abstinence. What many simply see as snappy ad copy insidiously reinforces the framing of an adversarial relationship to food.

When Plum’s doctor tells her that she needs to lose more weight in order to qualify for bariatric surgery, she tells him that she’s been religiously following the Waist Watchers program, and he retorts that “she might want to try a new religion.” Food is represented as something sinful to be avoided and dieting is regarded as a way to find redemption. This framing places fatness squarely in the realm of morality. To be fat is not simply to exist along the spectrum of body types, but to fail to morally contain yourself. Fat people are presumed to be fat because of a personal failure to abstain; a virtuous adherent would avoid temptation. Allowing your body to expand is to transgress against God, but it remains to be seen what kind of God requires such extreme restriction and self-loathing.

It’s shocking too how casually her doctor advises her to starve herself to get the weight off. When she protests that cutting her caloric intake in half would leave her with only 700 calories a day, he simply reiterates that she needs to lose 15 more pounds before he can perform the surgery. Starvation diets are dangerous and unsustainable, but when thinness is the objective, the ideal takes precedence over health. Fat people cannot even find solace or empathy in medicine, and this scene replicates the all-too-real bias fat people face from the medical community. No matter what choice she makes, Plum loses. As a fat person she is subjected to other people’s disgust, but she must also prove that she is disciplined enough to deserve the “easy out” of weight-loss surgery.

To be fat is not simply to exist along the spectrum of body types, but to fail to morally contain yourself.

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When Plum decides not to have the surgery in a later episode, Steven pounces, telling her that staying fat will kill her and that the women of Calliope House are radicalizing her with “crazy” ideas. He insists that she’s unhealthy and that he fears for her life if she does not lose weight. Instead of being a trusted friend with whom she can commiserate, Steven repeats all of the same harmful talking points that perpetuate negative ideas about fat people’s bodies, telling her that she waddles when she walks, gets out of breath too easily, and that he worries that she will have a heart attack. Steven makes his friendship conditional upon her conceding to his perception of her body, essentially withholding his sympathy until she quells his anxieties.

This kind of fatphobic “concern-trolling” is a common experience for fat people, and actually contributes to overall health decline by making it more difficult for fat people to receive adequate and comprehensive medical care. At one of Plum’s Waist Watchers meeting, the adjudicator weighs her and declares that she’s “still morbidly obese” though she’s progressing in her overall weight loss. The words hang in the air as the adjudicator shuttles her into the meeting. MORBIDLY OBESE. The phrase conjures images of macabre grotesqueries, bodies distorted beyond recognition. Plum’s body is grotesque in its very existence and must be corrected in order to earn the kind of tender language reserved for those whose bodies conform. Current beauty standards make fatness and femininity mutually exclusive; even plus-size models must fit within specific size ranges in order to be considered acceptable.

Since Plum is fat, not even her whiteness can grant her access to the soft, benevolent utterances that she would otherwise be entitled to if she were thin. Fat is an aberration, and aberrations must be corrected. Thinner women might be granted ego-preserving euphemisms like “curvy” or “voluptuous” but larger women are simply fat. They are not seen as requiring the sensitivity normally extended around fraught issues of body shame and body image. Indelicate language is seen as tough love.

Joy Nash as Plum Kettle standing in front of a sign on Dietland (Photo credit: Patrick Harbron/AMC)

When Verena Baptist insists that Plum go on a few dates in order to “present the pretty package” after she undergoes a makeover, she encounters several men who unkindly assess her body. One insists he is a good man but still feels compelled to comment on how her body is different from the women he usually dates. He’s not on a date but a safari to experience the strange ways of “larger women.” Another declares upfront that he is “just not attracted to skinny women,” but it soon becomes clear that he is attracted not to her, but to her fatness, eventually admitting that watching her eat turns him on. Plum isn’t seen as a person, but a collection of body parts he can fetishize. Her fat is the source of his attraction, and the person she is becomes irrelevant. “You can’t force someone to like something the whole world tells them is gross and unhealthy,” Plum later tells Verena. Though Plum is presenting her “best self,” she’s still regarded as nothing more than the size of her body.

Combative language about fatness also spills over into the way that the show’s skinny women characters discuss their bodies. Kitty is thin but discusses her body like it’s a battlefield. “You can do things for the face, the body, even the hands. But the waist you have to attack,” she says in a conversation with Plum. She laments that as soon as women start looking older in the fashion industry they’re replaced, and she resolves to never let it happen to her. “I will not be left behind” she muses. Kitty’s character is a fascinating contrast to Plum because while she is proud of having managed to remain within the “acceptable” confines of beauty, she acknowledges that doing so requires an intense and nearly unsustainable level of labor and restriction on her part. She’s skinny and beautiful, but not without aggressive body modification.

Fatphobia can manifest in many ways. Whether it’s a lack of clothing options, policies that make air travel embarrassing and uncomfortable, or an absence in media representation, it’s often the language we use that shapes the way fat people relate to their bodies. The casual digs and the well-intentioned advice frame fatness as a problem to be solved instead of a simple fact of the diversity of bodies. Changing the way we discuss fatness can reframe the public perception of fat people as sloppy, morally bankrupt gluttons who take more than their fair share. Dietland works hard to achieve this by presenting its fat protagonist’s evolution from weight-obsessed to motivated, determined, and in control of her body. By showing that Plum is more than her body, Dietland sets itself from other shows that position fatness as a moral failure for characters to overcome.

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by Cate Young
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Cate Young is a Trinibagonian writer, and creator of BattyMamzelle; a feminist pop culture blog focused on film, television, music and critical commentary on media representation. Her writing has focused particularly on the intersection of race, gender and sexuality, specifically with introducing an intersectional analysis to discussions of pop culture and media representation and  has appeared in Persephone Magazine, Bitch Flicks and The Powder Room and been recognized by Mic.com, The LA Times and The AFP. Cate has a BA in Photojournalism from Boston University and a Master's in Mass Communications with the University of Leicester. Cate is the 2016 Bitch Media Fellow for Pop Culture Criticism.